Benwar Shepard and Element Brass Band bringing the Mardi Gras feel to Sacramento in front of South. (Photo courtesy of BTU Arts)

Art Exposed: Benwar Shepard

Back Q&A Dec 7, 2017 By Andru Defeye

Benwar Shepard’s love of music dates back to his experiences in elementary school band, where he found one of his earliest influences in the saxophone skills of Lisa Simpson. Now, the South Sacramento native and member of Sammie award-winning Element Brass Band is a music teacher in local classrooms and on the street corners. He even demonstrates music scales and assigns homework to unsuspecting journalists.

Since 2015, Shepard and his team at Bigger Than Us Arts have been making music and public art experiences accessible to the youth of South Sacramento. Recently, the nonprofit was awarded a $5,000 Creative Economy Pilot Project grant from the City of Sacramento to bring a New Orleans-style second line parade to the Valley Hi neighborhood. This parade will bring an all-ages brass band composed of community members together to march through the streets of South Sacramento, and BTU Arts is hoping this will be the first of many. Comstock’s caught up with Shepard to discuss what’s in store for 2018 as he embarks on his Creative Economy parade project, works on a new studio album with the Element Brass Band, and fathers a brand new baby. As it happened, we also learned the correct fingering for a C major scale.

Benwar Shepard (center) and the youth of BTU Arts. (Photo courtesy of BTU Arts)

What is Bigger Than Us Arts? Tell us about what you’re all going to do with the Creative Economy grant you just received.

Bigger Than Us is an arts education nonprofit that is focused on supporting positive forms of expression throughout the community through exposure, instruction and performance in the arts. Our goal is also to set up a self-sustaining arts community through partnerships and services. We are extremely fortunate to be one of the recipients of the Creative Economy grant. With the support we are receiving we will activate the Valley Hi community with a second line parade that will end at the Mack Road and Franklin Boulevard intersection. This will be an event with and for the public. With participants ranging from beginners to professionals, this event will represent the full arts community and allow the opportunity for the community to perform together.

Benwar Shepard and some of the youngest BTU Arts youth during recorder class. (Photo courtesy of BTU Arts)

What does “creative economy” mean to you? What role did accessible music programs play in your current musical career?

Creative economy, to me, means the space that we allow expression, creativity and innovation to develop and strengthen. It is a means to aid the community in finding a voice that allows them to express, explore and project their version of the world. To depict our experiences and life situations as well as to find positive solutions to the issues and injustices that we see in our world.

What role did accessible music programs play in your current musical career?

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Benwar Shepard (right) at the Creative Economy Pilot Project grant announcements. (Photo courtesy of BTU Arts)

Accessible music programs played a huge part of my development. I grew up in the Valley Hi rea in South Sacramento. I started singing in church as a child with my family, but I didn’t pick up an instrument until my elementary school had a program where we were pulled out of class for band instructions. I was in fifth grade. I chose the alto saxophone because of Lisa Simpson. I loved [The Simpsons]. I also didn’t realize the difference between a baritone saxophone (the large sax that Lisa plays) and alto saxophone (the one that Bleeding Gums Murphy plays in the show). I played in band from elementary through high school and got a music scholarship to University of the Pacific, after which I began teaching and playing professionally. I now make a living teaching and playing music because I had access to both school and community programs from elementary school to present day. It’s imperative to me to provide and assist in the progressions of events and opportunities that I had for the youth within our communities.

What’s next for Element Brass Band?

Element Brass Band is excited to be releasing a new album on Jan. 1, 2018, entitled “Cali Got a Brass Band”. We have a tour coming up summer 2018 and, as always, we plan on performing at festivals and concerts throughout California. Element Brass Band is also very active within the community. You will see individual band members, and most times the entire band, out with the youth and community of Sacramento putting music in the streets and dancing with the people.

Benwar Shepard demonstrating how to busk with a makeshift trash can drum. (Photo courtesy of BTU Arts)

What does receiving funding from the city mean to you and BTU Arts?

Receiving funding from the city means a lot to us. We service all communities, but we primarily like to be involved in the lower income communities because they are often overlooked and we work to aid in building the bridge to fill the equity gap between different populations. This partnership with the city means that we are attempting to heal and develop our communities through the arts together through the vehicle of positive forms of expression.

What is the difference between a sousaphone and a tuba?

Though they are played the same, the tuba is made to be played in a seated position. They can be too big and heavy to carry for long periods of time. A sousaphone was made for marching or walking. Made by John Philip Sousa (famous composer and director who lead The President’s Own marching band around the world several times) for his tuba players to play on the streets. He was serious about taking music to the streets. Marching bands were also the preferred media of entertainment of the the time. This was 1880 to 1920.

What do you listen to on the drive to school to motivate you?

I listen to a variety of things [heading] to work. Depends on what I need. New Orleans brass band including Rebirth Brass Band, Hot 8 Brass Band, Stooges Brass Band, and others. Gerald Clayton, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, Percy Grainger, Bach Organ Fugues, MPR, and lots of instrumentals.

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